I’ve written for MediaShift several times about journalistic collaboration between news organizations, such as the Climate Desk project, for example, or Public Media’s EconomyStory. But there’s another kind of collaboration that’s critical to the future of journalism: Collaboration between a news organization and the community it serves.

This kind of collaboration is critical for a few reasons. First, as anyone who reads MediaShift surely knows, the line between consumers of news and producers of news continues to blur. Community blogger expertise may match that of a newspaper’s Metro columnist, and the people watching the evening news post their own video of news events to YouTube. Just as formerly competitive newsrooms are beginning to work together, as limited resources encourage the setting aside of differences in pursuit of a superior news product, news organizations need to rethink their relationships with the communities they serve.

In addition, finding efficient ways to harness and apply community expertise is increasingly critical to a news organization’s ability to compete. Projects like Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Network have emerged to leverage the power of networks to source stories and collect quotes.

KCET Departures

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Juan Devis

One example of community/news provider collaboration that really captures my imagination is Departures, an online documentary series from KCET Los Angeles. What sets Departures apart, for me, is the passion and dedication of its producer, Juan Devis. Devis is not just passionate about community collaboration in the abstract, or obedient to the trendy importance of listening to community members; rather, he is passionate about Los Angeles, about the people of Los Angeles, and about bringing the neighborhoods of the city to life in an authentic and compelling way online.

“No one knows Los Angeles as well as the organizations and individuals working and living in the area,” Devis wrote to me via email. “By bringing them in and engaging them in every step of the content development process, Departures provides an authentic, accurate and fresh take on the issues and stories most affecting the city.”

For example, Devis and his team produced a recent installment on Chinatown in partnership with the Chinese American Museum and the Chinatown Service Center Youth Council, providing multimedia production training to student reporters, who in turn contributed stories to the series.

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There is also a concerted effort to capture stories from a diverse array of citizens in order to paint a multi-layered portrait of a neighborhood, rather than extrapolating truths about a place based on scarce citizen interaction. For the Chinatown installment, for example, Devis and crew spoke to hundreds of people from the neighborhood, ranging from community activists Munson Kwok and Irvin Lai, to Congresswoman Judy Chu, to journalists Ann Summa and Jeff Spurrier, who covered the Chinatown Punk Scene in the 1980s.

The name “Departures” is meant to evoke the idea of traveling within your own city — discovering new neighborhoods and cultures with fresh eyes, from Chinatown to Compton Creek to Venice Beach’s Abbot Kinney Boulevard. Devis calls the series a love letter to the city. The content of Departures, then, is more evocative than provocative; it’s meant to conjure a sense of place, and replicate the experience of talking to the people in a neighborhood — Mr. Rogers would be proud — rather than analyze issues or draw conclusions.

Non-Linear Storytelling and Falling Short

In fact, by design, Departures encourages users to form their own opinions of the city and its people.

“When you’re tied to a linear narrative, you’re tied to a point of view,” Devis said in a video about the project. Departures is decidedly non-linear, with a series of interactive maps and murals serving as gateways to a collection of audio, video, and text stories. This approach to navigation encourages users to explore each installment the way they might explore a physical neighborhood, wandering down a series of streets and alleyways.

I admire this concept, though in practice, navigating the Departures site is not quite immersive. (I should confess that I used to write a column about intersections between documentary storytelling and the web, and have strong opinions about multimedia storytelling.) The series home page features individual stories from the latest installment in the manner of a traditional news website; I’d rather begin at a visually evocative map of the city that lets me “travel” to and from individual neighborhoods. While there is a central Departures map, it’s a traditional map interface with pin points that correspond to the locations of individual stories, rather than a visual interface that evokes a sense of place.

The stories in Departures “should not be the ends unto themselves,” Devis said, “but seeds: A context for engagement.”

But while his team’s real-world, behind-the-scenes engagement with communities is clear, online engagement with Departures seems surprisingly low. The series home page features a “From the Community” box, a design decision that seems at odds with the series’ core dedication to stories from the community. The Community box features few comments, and I did not see comments integrated with the stories throughout the site. Given the series ethos, shouldn’t community members’ responses to the stories — in other words, the dialogue around the stories — be an equal part of the storytelling experience?

Expanding Departures

When I asked Devis about the interplay of Departures with KCET’s more traditional news programming, he noted that now that the series has matured, “it offers a concise template that the station itself can follow, so KCET has started to incorporate some Departures elements in its more traditional media spaces.” Devis also shared that beginning in 2011, his team will begin creating a series of daily TV interstitials tied to Departures. “We anticipate that, by that time, the media production teams (at KCET) will overlap in ways that we have not seen before,” he said.

Devis talks about wanting to expand Departures beyond Los Angeles, and I hope he can do it. I’d love to see this kind of artistic representation of local culture depicting communities nationwide. Sure, the site itself could be improved — but what site couldn’t be? We need more rich, textured representation of local community culture, and I’d take a flawed but passionate, visionary approach over a more tepid effort any day. I worry, though, that replication will require reliance on templates, which will inhibit the site’s ability to be more immersive.

“Journalism and news organizations need to become context providers,” Devis said. “That is, they need to create and provide spaces — structures — into which users and community members are invited as full participants, and from which meaningful stories can emerge.”

I agree, and I hope other news organizations will be inspired by Devis’ example.

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What examples have you seen of collaboration between news organizations and local communities? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Image of Chinatown sign courtesy of Flickr user 7-how-7

The former editorial director of PBS.org, Amanda Hirsch is a digital media consultant who recently managed the EconomyStory collaboration, a journalistic partnership between 12 public media organizations. Learn more about Amanda’s background at amandahirsch.com and follow her on Twitter at @publicmediagirl.

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